Robert Locke on the War on Drugs

At the Thinking Housewife, Laura Wood links to and excerpts an article discussing how heroin use is ravaging Vermont. I immediately thought of Robert Locke’s 2001 essay Why We Must Not End the War on Drugs. Since Mr. Locke has apparently retired from the arena of public intellectual combat, I reprint the essay in full below.

For those in a hurry, Mr. Locke’s central point is this: If all forms of drug use were to be legalized, it would rapidly become not only socially acceptable, but subsidized and forcibly legitimized by the state, much as homosexuality has been. The results would be catastrophic. Even more catastrophic, that is.

Note also that there is a legitimate debate on the tactics we use to oppose drug abuse. Mr. Locke’s essay concerns only the key point that we must not end official opposition to drug abuse.

 Why We Must not End the War on Drugs.

EVERY FEW YEARS the call resurfaces for America to abandon the drug war because we are supposedly expending great resources on a war we can’t win. I concede that some people, like FrontPage columnist Tanya Metaksa in a recent article, [AR: The link provided by Mr. Locke is no longer valid] make this mistake with honorable intentions. It therefore behooves us to remind ourselves why we are fighting and why the decent citizens of this country are under no obligation to surrender to the criminals.

Americans should not abandon fights against social ills simply because we are unable to completely eradicate them. Should we abandon the war on AIDS because we can’t win that one, either? Since libertarians are the ones who want big government to continue spending billions to enable them to do as they please in bed, they squirm at this question. There are many social problems that we can only mitigate, contain, prevent from growing, or prevent from growing faster than they otherwise would. But we are still better off fighting them than letting them run wild. That is what it means to live in an imperfect world.

That being said, why must we try to contain drug use? In predicting the likely consequences of legalization, people tend to make the classic error that has dogged social policy in this country since the Great Society: they assume that if we change the rules, we will be applying the new rules to the same set of circumstances that exist now. That is to say, if there are a group of people visibly wanting to do X, then allowing them to do so simply results in their doing so. But in fact, changing the rules also changes the social environment itself, resulting in vastly larger consequences. Welfare creates a culture of dependency, no-fault divorce makes divorce socially acceptable, and the immigration “reform” act of 1965, which now brings 1.2 million people per year into this country, was predicted at the time to result in 5,000 people per year. People are making the same mistake with their merry libertarian predictions about the consequences of legalizing drugs.

If drugs were legalized, they would rapidly become socially acceptable. The vast majority of people in this country still take law seriously, and disapprove of drugs (and refuse to tolerate drug use in their friends, children, or employees) in the final analysis because they are illegal. The fact that drug use is illegal is the only thing, in our let-it-all-hang-out society, that makes it socially possible for people to be openly intolerant of them. If everyone worked in offices where some of their coworkers were snorting cocaine at their lunch hour, it would not be socially possible to be adamant about [opposing] drug use because they would have to get along with the drug users. Given the anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws that already exist to protect lawful activities, they will eventually be forced to do so. Thus because of the social dynamic of people needing to get along with others, what is permitted in practice will inevitably drag people’s beliefs along with it. And when the social stigma goes, the least coercive and least governmental factor containing drug use will be gone.

Thus it will follow that drug use will become socially acceptable, and given that it has already been fashionable in elite circles for years, it will doubtless be downright trendy. If it is legal, it will constitute discrimination to demand that schoolteachers who use drugs and talk about it be fired. Proper drug use will eventually be taught in schools. If you don’t want to believe me, fine: learn nothing from the experience of liberalizing social mores over the past 40 years.

But the real problem, of course, will be that drug users will vote. At first, they will simply vote to be allowed to do their thing. Inevitably, they will vote to demand that society subsidize their doing so. For example, it is very hard for a lot of people to hold down a steady job of any seriousness while running a heavy drug habit. It is much easier for such people to survive on welfare. There may one day be tens of millions of such people. They vote. QED.

This is, naturally, one of the fundamental problems of combining libertarianism with democracy: if people are allowed to do as they please, they certainly can’t be allowed to have political power or they have an intrinsic incentive to use this power in self-subsidizing and predatory ways. Frankly, it makes clear that libertarianism is flatly incompatible with democracy, as the more intellectually honest libertarians have admitted for years. It makes clear that democracy requires virtue, not just liberty, on the part of the people who live in it, because they will wield real political power over their neighbors. This the Founding Fathers understood, quaint as it sounds today. Perhaps in a tyranny where nobody cares about anybody else or has any say in governing them, the libertarian position is tenable. The other absurdity of the libertarian defense of drug use is that, as anyone who has known such a person or seen the fascinating film Trainspotting knows, addictive drugs enslave their users with a ruthlessness that surpasses any government.  Is a heroin addict free?

So what happens when a majority of the population is on drugs? Well, we can kiss goodbye the disciplined society that currently makes our way of life possible. Call it the Protestant Work Ethic (a terribly unfair term, but we’re stuck with it) or whatever you like, but our economy and stable civic order are the product of a certain self-disciplined mentality and culture among the American people. They are emphatically not the product of a nation of lotus-eaters. Or opium-smokers. Interestingly, this potential situation is somewhat analogous to the situation in China at the time of the opium wars of the mid-19th century. There is a reason they went to war over drug importation, even if half of them were just fighting for a larger share of the profits.

Whenever the government expends vast resources fighting something, it is fair to ask that at an absolute minimum it not at the same time be making the problem worse though other policies. Our government currently subsidizes drug use by means of the welfare system. Serious use of many drugs renders the user incapable of holding down a steady job. In a dog-eat-dog world with no unemployment insurance and no welfare checks, this is clearly a strong incentive not to do drugs. This world is clearly not coming back, nor should it, but it would still be reasonable to remove the subsidy for illegal behavior by demanding drug tests in exchange for a government check, if only to guarantee that the taxpayers’ money isn’t spent on dope. Therefore we should institute mandatory random drug tests for all welfare recipients. It is only reasonable to extend this policy to anyone getting a government check. Student loans, for example.

This is the real way to make quantifiable progress in—I do not say win—the drug war. I agree with my opponents on this issue that militarizing the police forces of every banana republic in the Western hemisphere is an extremely crude way to go about it, and not likely worth the price. But this specific issue must not be confused with the drug war as such.

12 thoughts on “Robert Locke on the War on Drugs

  1. I’m curious to see what will happen. Wino’s don’t seem be a big drain on society and if drugs are as cheap as booze it might not be a big deal.

    • Um, what? Perhaps you haven’t noticed that the term wino is often used to refer to bums, also known more politely as “the homeless.” This comes from the observation that alcoholics are less likely to be able to hold down jobs and otherwise be productive members of society. There is also the collateral damage that alcoholics inflict on their families and communities, including, but not limited to, decreased productivity, increased illness (and therefore increased medical expenses), and early death.

      Marijuana was legalized recently in Washington and Colorado. Have you been paying attention to how that is playing out? Many illicit drugs are legal in certain northern European nations. Do you know anything about the social costs of that legalization?

      The main benefits of cheap marijuana are harm reduction (Junior is less likely to sniff glue if he can get high on pot) and decreased power to the criminals who peddle it. These are not trivial considerations, but do those benefits outweigh the costs? Given the enormous damage that legalized drugs do, I have to say no.

      • “Have you been paying attention to how that is playing out?”

        How is that panning out in those states? I haven’t read much about either since the first days, so I am curious.

      • Since legalization, there have already been problems with people who are high doing the stupid, and sometimes illegal, things that people with drug-impaired judgment do. One week after legalization in Washington, someone who was high caused a fatal accident.

        Even before legalization in Colorado and Washington, in many areas, the majority of those arrested on any charge have had THC in their systems. In fact, most DUI* arrests are for so-called poly-drug cases—people who have two or more substances in their systems (however, not all states test for substances other than alcohol when someone is arrested for DUI). The legalization of marijuana will lead inevitably to an increase in impaired driving.

        On top of all that, the marijuana-impaired do worse in school and often become unemployable drains on society. The black market will not go away just because it’s legal; the dealers and growers still want to make money. Marijuana is addictive, and is much stronger than it used to be. THC causes what amounts to brain damage. Again, I do not see the minor benefits as coming anywhere close to outweighing the considerable costs.

        *Driving Under the Influence, also called DWI (Driving While Impaired)

  2. In a strange paradox of liberalism, I can get an illegal substance (marijuana) from a state dispensary in California and some other states, but I won’t be able to buy an incandescent light bulb.

    The Opium Wars were supposedly about free trade, but larger issues were involved, as millions of Chinese learned to their sorrow. The purveyors of opium made out like bandits, which in a way they were.

    Follow the money.

  3. The vast majority of people in this country still take law seriously, and disapprove of drugs (and refuse to tolerate drug use in their friends, children, or employees) in the final analysis because they are illegal.

    Very good essay, and this may be the crucial point. Not to raise a different topic, but the comparison to homosexuality is quite appropriate – just today, elsewhere, I was reading a piece about gay “marriage” in Canada, and the writer pointed out that a great many Canadians who aren’t exactly sodomy enthusiasts nonetheless now think gay unions acceptable by and large because they’re law.

    Anyone who doubts the truth of the essay, thinking it impossible that cocaine or heroin should ever become widely accepted, needs to watch the trends with marijuana, which will probably be the “gateway drug” (heh) that legitimizes other drugs.

  4. This is simplistic in that it posits “legalization” versus “status quo”. Currently we criminalize both the trafficking of drugs as well as the possession of drugs. De-criminalization legalizes the possession of small amounts of drugs, but maintains laws against manufacturing/transporting/distributing drugs. At the same time, possession cases can be diverted into civil proceedings where you cooperate with services or you lose your government benefits, housing, professional licensing etc. (The Portugal model.) It is cheaper, and you get little benefit from warehousing people in jail for possession of small quantities. (Disrupting local suppliers is the best place for law enforcement resources.)

    As far marijuana legalization, marijuana is a different substance from say crack or heroin or ethanol, if you look at dependency ratios, toxicity, etc. Not to say recreational use is good for anyone, but it is simplistic to go from “marijuana legalization” to “drug legalization”. It might be on the whole beneficial if people substitute for ethanol or reduce their consumption of ethanol. As far as I can tell, the Drug War is a post-1960’s kulterkampf on the hippies. Since the hippies are all dead or in nursing homes, it is probably time to find someone else to repress. Maybe a war on discrimination to target religious traditionalists? You can probably pick up a disproportionate share of ethnic minorities with that net too.

    Of course, if the point is just to be reactionary–there was no recreational MJ use in Europe in 1650, so we should ban it today, by all means go ahead. But there are a number of policy options between the status quo and “legalization”. And as far as the libertarian objection, that we can pretend that public health doesn’t matter, you are absolutely right. You legalize heroin, you are going to get a horde of narco-zombies, whether they can manage to work or if they just sit around on the dole. Absolutely fine the libertarian says, get the police or the private security forces to push them outside your neighborhood–except when your kids join them.

    • Two basic points:

      One, it is not simplistic to demonstrate that one option out of many is a bad one. Given the nature of Western societies right now and for the foreseeable future, legalization is tantamount to full legitimization. And the legalization of one formerly-illegal drug creates (given current realities) a probably-irresistible impulse for legalization of all drugs. To quote Locke:

      The fact that drug use is illegal is the only thing, in our let-it-all-hang-out society, that makes it socially possible for people to be openly intolerant of them.

      Two, there is a legitimate question about exactly how opposition to drugs is to be expressed, but this does not invalidate the basic point of the essay.

      The basic “reactionary” drug policy is to oppose intoxication and trafficking in “hard” drugs with informal local sanctions, along with broad laws expressing opposition to same only when necessary.

      • Alan:

        I think I basically agree with you, but my point is it is more effective to divert the addicts into civil proceedings where they either get sober or lose their kids and their government benefits than it is to clog up our jails with drug addicts (and you don’t have to worry about their 4th amendment rights). Let bums who want to be bums do so without state subsidy, and give those that want to return to normal society the opportunity to repent and otherwise get their acts together.


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